In our modern religious rhetoric, it is not uncommon to hear about a person’s “soul” – an immaterial entity that animates the body and lives on after death. Certain English Bible translations, like the King James rendering of Psalm 42:4, seem to support this idea of a soul inside the body: “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me.” However, before concluding that the ancient Israelites believed in a non-physical, internal “soul,” we must ascertain (1) what the KJV means by “soul” and (2) what the underlying Hebrew means in its own linguistic context. Answering these two questions will show that the ancient Israelites did not share the contemporary notion of a “soul.”

Most often, the King James uses “soul” to signify a physical “person,” not an ethereal, internal force. For instance, Exodus recalls the Hebrews who migrated to Egypt: “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was already in Egypt” (Exod 1:5 KJV). In this case, “soul” refers to an “individual person” or “human being.” Like Joseph, who is “already in Egypt,” the descendants of Israel who “came out of Jacob’s loins” (יצאי ירך יעקב; yotsey yerek ya’aqov) are embodied people, not intangible “souls.” This use of “soul” is equivalent to its use in “not a soul in sight,” which tells us that there is not a single person around, not that we can’t see any invisible entities!

The Hebrew word translated “soul” is נפשׁ (nefesh), which means one’s “self,” “life,” or “person.” Genesis 12:5 clarifies this usage: “Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance [or “goods” (רכושׁם; rekhusham)] that they had gathered, and the souls (נפשׁ; nefesh) they had gotten in in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan” (KJV). Since every other entity listed in this verse is either a physical person (Abram, Sarai, Lot) or physical objects (“substance” or “goods”), it follows that the “souls” are physical “persons” or “lives”—Abram isn’t herding abstract souls into the land of Canaan.

The most fundamental meaning of נפשׁ is “neck” or “throat,” as reflected in Psalm 69:1: “Save me, God; for the waters have come up to [my] neck (נפשׁ; nefesh).” The term came to mean one’s entire “life” because, the Hebrew logic goes: cut the throat, and lose the life. This is why the psalmist asks God to “guard my life” (שׁמרה נפשׁי; shamrah nafshi) from physical enemies who seek to kill him (cf. Ps 25:20; 86:2). The ancient Israelites did not think in terms of a “soul” separate from the body; rather, the Hebrew נפשׁ describes a person’s selfhood—that is, one’s very being.   

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73 COMMENTS

  1. According to Genesis 2:7 God did not make a body and put a soul into it like a letter into an envelope of atoms; rather he formed man's body from the atoms, then, by breathing divine breath into it, he made the body of atoms live, i.e. the earth molecules did not embody a soul, but it became a soul—a whole creature.
    What is less clear is how is a new spiritual entity (human) made. At conception a new human is created - a blend of the parents genetics. It is not inconceivable to consider at conception both the body and spirit is made. As humans were created in the beginning in His image, so we procreate giving our children a unique spirit but in his image.
    • Thanks, Thomas. I agree with you on your first sentence. Since the day man sinned, his spirit "died." This is why Jesus commanded Nicodemus to be re-borned, i.e. Nicodemus is a living soul with a "dead" spirit.

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  2. Would you say the English words soul and spirit get intertwined, as in which of the two exists in the afterlife?
    I’ve always heard both used in afterlife discussions and thought they should be separated as one or the other and the terms clarified as you did here.
    J.
    • Thanks for your question, Jerry. Yes, I think that "soul" gets equated with "spirit" in common parlance, but the two are very different concepts in Hebrew thought. I'm planning to write an article on "spirit" next, so I'll unpack more of what I mean soon!

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    • Good questions, Christine. Jesus raises bodies from the grave in the last day (i.e, resurrection). Hebrew thought has the spirit, or spiritual body, going to Sheol after death and awaiting bodily resurrection. The idea of a disembodied "soul" going the heaven after death is more Greek than it is Hebrew. Heaven is where God lives, and then in the last day heaven comes down to a renewed earth where people have been raised from the dead (cf. Rev 20-21).

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  3. To me the soul is like a deed. It is the entitlement to the body and spirit. However the body dies but the spirit lives on in memory of the body, so the soul continues to live. Wherever the deed/soul is, the ownership is with the holding entity.
  4. I don't know if there is really a concept of soul in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in Torah, though the Prophet talk about it. Can someone give a clarification?
    • Thanks, Bavani. Like the Torah, the Prophets also speak of a "nefesh" (often translated "soul"), but what they mean is a "life" or a "self" or a "person," rather than a disembodied, abstract "substance" floating around inside the body. That is, when English translations have "soul," the modern reader tends to equate that word with an internal, invisible entity. But that is not what the actual Hebrew term means.
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  5. I understand the Greek concept of soul has confused the English readers understanding of the Hebrew definition.
    • You're absolutely right, John. The idea of an ethereal, internal "soul" is Greek, rather than Hebrew. The ancient Israelites had the notion of an internal "spirit," which is linked to God's "breath," but this is different from a "soul" in the (Hellenized) sense that we often mean it today.
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  6. the trinity of man Spirit soul and body
    The spirit touches the spirit wold
    The soul touches the intellectual realm
    The body touches the material realm
    it would take a long lesson to explain it all
    • I have pondered this question for many years.I always understood that the soul is something that is eternal and we take with us to the etheric realms when we transition and our spirit is something that leaves us with our earthly body. If you think of the expressions "a spirited person" or "to break her spirit" I have always interpreted these as being synonymous partially with a persons character. A person's character is of course characterised by human emotions and ego. Where as when our soul transitions to the etheric realms, it leaves all emotional characteristics and ego behind on the physical plane. Does that make sense?

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  7. In Genesis story it is quite apparent that God allowed His creative power, to bring forth man from the earth - He takes the slime of the earth and shapes Adam - and breathing into it or giving His spirit or Soul so that he becomes a spirited being.
    • True, Barney (though Adam is created from "dust," not "slime"). "Spirit" and "soul" are two very different things in Hebrew thought, so it's best not to conflate the two.
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